Electronic Music Theory For Beginners
Electronic music theory… Is it necessary? Probably one of the biggest questions that plague the mind of the bedroom music producer. Some people say it only limits your creativity, but in my personal opinion, electronic music theory is an absolute must. Now, when I say ‘electronic music theory’ I basically mean normal music theory but more for the electronic music producer. So, if you are reading this, I take it that’s what you are.
Electronic music theory is not essential, but it can dramatically improve the quality of music you produce. Understanding some basic music theory can help you write better chord progressions, melodies, bass lines, and help structure your songs.
What you will learn.
- Understanding Scales
- Understanding Chords
- Making Chord Progressions
- Choosing Bass Notes
- Choosing Melody Notes
I’m not saying that you need to read and write musical scores and be at the same level Beethoven was. That level of understanding will take your entire life to achieve. All I’m saying is if you learn just a few simple ‘guidelines’, you will be able to understand how most electronic music is built and implement those techniques into your own music.
How can it help?
You know when you randomly get a chord progression or a melody pop into your head and you quickly jump onto you DAW and try to get it down before the idea fades away and is lost forever? Yep, well this is where electronic music theory comes in handy.
There have been so many times where inspiration has sparked, and I have been left disappointed because my knowledge of music theory was limiting my capability to write the chords I heard in my head.
But after I learned the following basic ‘guidelines’, I could use them to work out what those chords were. It’s not like you will instantly know what the chords in your head are, but you will understand the process you can go through to figure them out.
Another great way it can help is by listening to your favorite songs, and by using these ‘guidelines’, reverse engineer them to see how they were put together. This is one of the best things a new producer can do.
I say ‘guidelines’ because music theory should not be taken as rules that must be followed. Music theory should be seen as a set of guidelines that help you get your ideas down. I think your ears are the most important part of developing your own sound and making music creatively. If you rely too much on these ‘guidelines’ you will end up producing music like a robot.
Well with that all said, let’s take a look at exactly what these guidelines are.
If you understand scales, you can pretty much break down any chord or melody you hear. They are the building blocks and the very first step in learning about electronic music theory.
A scale is a set of notes in an octave. For example. C major scale consists of the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and back to C to repeat the scale on the next octave. The F minor Scale consists of F, G, Ab, Bb, C, Db, Eb, and back to F to repeat.
When you see a note such as ‘Ab’ it means ‘flat’, meaning it is one semitone less than ‘A’.
When you see a note such as ‘A#’ it means ‘sharp’, meaning it is one semitone more than ‘A’.
There are some easy to follow formulas that allow you to make any musical scale with ease. Each scale has its own formula, but the two most popular scales are the Major and Minor scales.
- ‘W’ = Two semitones or one Whole note.
- ‘H’ = One semitone or Half of a full note.
Let’s look at how to learn these scales using their formulas.
Major Scale. I’m sure you have probably heard of a major scale before. It is known by having a ‘happy’ and ‘joyful’ feeling. ‘Avicci – Levels’ was made in the E major scale making it feel happy and bouncy.
Major scale formula: W W H W W W H
Example. To use the formula simply choose what key you want, then count up using the ‘whole’ or ‘half’ steps from the formula. I will use the E major scale. E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D#, and back to E.
Minor Scale. The minor scale has a completely different feel to the major scale, it generally sounds sadder making it a good choice for emotional music. ‘Flume – Say It’ was made in the D# minor scale making it feel more meaningful and emotional.
Minor scale formula: W H W W H W W
Example. Use the same method as above to work out your scale. I will use the D minor scale. D#, E# or F, F#, G#, A#, B, C#, and back to D#.
Other Scales. There are a whole bunch of other scales out there such as Diminished, Harmonic, Melodic, Pentatonic, and many more. Each scale has a different feeling and a different formula can be used to figure out exactly what notes are in that scale. Just search ‘Different types of musical scales’ in google to see all the others.
A chord is more than one note playing simultaneously. There are many different ways that we can arrange the notes in a chord, such as triads, 7th, 9th, 11th, 13th, and many more. The possibilities are endless. Once again there are some ‘guidelines’ that can help you come up with some awesome fun and interesting chords.
To keep things simple, I will use the following scales in the examples below:
- C major scale: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and back to C.
- C minor scale: C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, and back to C.
Each of the notes in these scales will be allocated a number 1 through to 7. This is called a scale degree.
While scale degrees refer to single notes, chords are also numbered, but they use roman numerals instead to save confusion.
- I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII and then back to I.
The ‘I’ chord will begin in ‘C’ and is called the ‘First chord’. The ‘II’ chord will begin with a ‘D’ and is called the ‘second chord’ etc. I think you get the idea.
Let’s take a look at some of the most important chords.
Triads. A triad is the simplest of chords consisting of only 3 notes. Hence triad. They only consist of the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes from the scale. So, in the case of C major scale, a C triad will consist of C, E, and G. In the C minor scale, C, Eb, and G. Pretty easy to follow along huh.
C major scale triads:
- I = C, E, G
- II = D, F, A
- III = E, G, B
- IV = F, A, C
- V = G, B, F
- VI = A, C, E
- VII = B, D, G
C minor scale triads:
- I = C, Eb, G
- II = D, F, Ab
- III = Eb, G, Bb
- IV = F, Ab, C
- V = G, Bb, D
- VI = Ab, C, Eb
- VII = Bb, D, F
7th, 9th, 11th, 13th. Now we have discussed triads and scale degrees, we can begin to add extra notes to our triads to create larger and fuller sounding chords. This can be achieved by adding the 7th, 9th, 11th, and 13th notes in your scale degree. You can choose to add as many notes as you like. To add these notes to your chords you simply keep counting up your scale degree until you reach the note you wish to add.
C major chords with 7th:
- I = C, E, G, B
- II = D, F, A, C
- III = E, G, B, D
- IV = F, A, C, E
- V = G, B, D, F
- VI = A, C, E, G
- VII = B, D, F, A
C minor chords with 7th and 9th:
- I = C, Eb, G, Bb, D
- II = D, F, Ab, C, E
- III = Eb, G, Bb, D, F
- IV = F, Ab, C, Eb,G
- V = G, Bb, D, F, Ab
- VI = Ab, C, Eb, G, Bb
- VII = Bb, D, F, Ab, C
Inversions. This is where things can begin to get fun! Inversions are when you move any of your notes in your chord up or down an octave to create a slightly different sound. There are a few different types of chord inversions so let’s look at them.
First inversion. A first inversion is when you take the first note in your chord and put it up an octave. The notes in your chord are still exactly the same, only the first note is an octave higher.
Second inversion. A second inversion follows the same principle as a first inversion by moving the first note in your chord up an octave, but then it also moves the second note in your scale up an octave too. Let’s say we were looking at the C major chord, C, E, G. The C, and the E would both be moved up one octave and be higher than the G. This is still called a second inversion.
Other inversions. You can choose to invert your chords as you wish by moving notes up or down. As I mentioned earlier these tips and just guidelines that can help you understand music theory. Experiment with different chord inversions by moving notes up or down 1 or more octaves and see what works best for you.
Chord Voicing. Choosing exactly where to put the notes in your chords is called chord voicing. Some people like to spread their notes across many octaves, while others like to keep them nice and tight. Each will wield a completely different sound.
Different genres generally use different styles of chord voicings because of the sounds they produce. Future bass super saws will generally spread their chord voicings wide, so the audio spectrum sounds full and big, while other genres will keep them close.
I personally produce future bass so most of the time I voice my notes quite wide. Some professional artists like Illenium, and Seven Lions, will voice their chords over 4 or 5 octaves! Pretty crazy.
A good way to spread out your notes is by shifting them up or down an octave or two. If you have too much space in between your notes and want to fill in some of the gaps, try adding doubles of the same notes but spread over different octaves.
Power Chords. Power chords are another simple chord to make. They consist of only 2 notes. The 1st note and the 5th note from your scale. In the scale of C, a power chord will consist of C and G. You can beef up this chord by adding another C on the octave above to fill out the sound.
They are a great way of breaking up your full-sounding chords and leaving some space while retaining a very harmonic sound.
Now you know how to make single chords, it’s time to turn those single chords into chord progressions. A chord progression just a series of chords. In most electronic music these chords are repeated over a simple 8 or 16 beat loop. It’s always a good idea to set your DAW to loop those 8 or 16 beats so you can get a better feel of your chord progression.
I have written a small article explaining exactly how to make future bass chord and chord progressions. You can read it HERE.
There are some guidelines you can follow that can help you get started creating your chord progressions.
As we mentioned earlier, each chord in a scale is allocated a specific roman numeral. I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII. Now, things might get a little confusing here, but try your best to follow along. Out of all the chords in a major scale, some are major chords, but some are also minor chords.
Major chords will be labeled with upper case roman numerals.
Minor chords will be labeled with lower case roman numerals.
To work this out, we must count the steps in between the 1st scale degree and 3rd scale degree.
- If your 3rd scale degree lands two full notes, or 4 semitones, up from your 1st scale degree, the chord in a major.
- If your 3rd scale degree lands one and a half notes, or 3 semitones up from your 1st scale degree, the chord is a minor.
- C major: I ii iii IV V vi vii
- C minor: i ii III iv v VI VII
If you find this difficult to understand, you can just google it.
Generally, the ‘I’ or ‘I’ chord is the home chord. It is a very important chord because the listener will want to hear it. There are some other chords we can add to emphasize that home feeling even more. These chords have an ending type of feeling and give your chord progression a nice transition back into the home chord. These are called ‘Cadence Chords’.
Popular cadence chords: IV, V
Now we understand more about minor and major chords in our scales, we can learn where to use them. Every chord has an emotion or feeling attached to it. These minor chords can be used in your progression and help create suspense and drag out the progression before it lands back on your home chord.
Popular suspense chords: ii, iii, vi, vii
Experiment with writing down a chord progression before you make it in your DAW. By doing so you will approach your music with a guided direction rather than just taking stabs in the dark.
Here are some common chord progressions to get you started:
- I, V, vi, IV
- V, vi, IV, I
- I, IV, I, V
To activate beast mode, simply add an 808 or sub bass… But what notes should they be? Well, let’s talk about that. A good starting point for choosing the right bass notes is to simply copy the lowest notes of your chord progression and play along with your chords. This will fit perfectly and sound awesome just like that. But if that’s not enough for you there are some other things you can do to spice it up a little.
The root note of the chord will always sound the best, but you can mess around with trying other scale degrees.
Experiment with the 1st, 3rd and 5th scale degrees as they will sound the most harmonic.
The most important aspect of any melody is its ability to catch the listener’s attention. It must be catchy enough for the lister to remember and start humming or singing along to. This can be achieved by repeating small melody phrases over and over. This might sound boring, but when supported by some interesting chords, it can bring your song to life.
Most melodies are not as complicates as one might think. They can basically consist of any scale degree, but just like the bass notes, the most harmonic notes for a melody 1st, 3rd and 5th scale degrees. They will always sound the best no matter what chord is supporting it.
Another great technique is to change your melody notes to the notes playing in the current chord. This will fit your melody perfectly for that part of the song. The only negative of this is you can’t repeat the same melody over and over to catch the listener’s attention.
There are so many resources available on the internet that can help you learn basic electronic music theory. I am by no means a professional when it comes to music theory, but I have learned that understand some basics can go a long way.
There is one book that is great for people who have absolutely no knowledge of music theory. I love this book so much I read it every now and then to refresh my memory. It covers the basics of major and minor scales, from chords to melodies and everything in between.
The book is called ‘Hook Theory’ and will run you about $35.
You can see it HERE.
As I mentioned a few times, all these tips are just guidelines to help guide you in a direction and give you a better understanding of how songs are typically produced. You can choose to do what you want with them, but I personally only use them to help me when I am lacking inspiration. Once inspiration has sparked, I stop using these guidelines and begin using my ears.
Also, another great way to learn music theory is by breaking down your favorite songs. I have searched the internet for the ultimate list of free MIDI files so you can do just that.
The ultimate list of free MIDI files
I hope this electronic music theory article has helped and as always, good luck and happy producing.